When we think of the mindsets of influential leaders, we think of what popular culture has shown us—you need to be confident, brash, and own every room you walk into. Those characteristics create a great film character but don’t translate to real business leaders. 

Some businesses succeed and drive outcomes with overconfident leaders, but that’s not nearly as common as they have made us believe. Confidence isn’t about being brash, it’s about being humble, and that’s something Kat Cole lives and leads by.

Kat is the President and COO of Athletic Greens, but she’s perhaps best known for her meteoric rise through Hooters—from a small-town hostess to a VP—where she was opening franchises around the world by the age of 26. Kat has a lot to say about being an empathetic entrepreneur and why humility is a must for today’s Learning Leaders.

Everyone brings their history to work.

In Kat’s words: You never know what your coworkers are going through or what they bring to the office every day. When I meet someone new, they might not realize why I lead the way I do.

When I was 9, my mom finally left my dad after years of emotional abuse and alcoholism. Instead of crying, I asked her, “What took you so long?”

I am who I am today because of those experiences with my parents and the years that followed. Although things were difficult, my mom never lost her positivity or appreciation—and I can’t remember a time when she spoke negatively about my dad, despite everything that happened. She taught me to celebrate the success of others without feeling envious or complaining. To this day, that’s helped me navigate tricky situations with grace and class as an employee and a leader.

I call this pragmatic optimism— a lot is possible with very little. This mindset will strengthen you in the most difficult times in life and in business.

If I am bringing all of that history to every business meeting, negotiation, and disagreement, I know my employees are bringing their own. I don’t know what they’ve gone through, but I must help them navigate where they might be having trouble and provide a safe space to discuss problems with me. No team conflict or employee performance issue is what it seems on the surface level. It’s your job as a Learning Leader to dig deeper.

Service-oriented leadership drives more results than hierarchy.

When I join a new company or lead a new team, I want to build that trust and culture quickly so we can make real changes from the get-go. To do this, I lead by action and show a level of vulnerability to my team. Teams can’t be successful if there’s no deeper level of connectivity with one another—no intimacy or bedrock of trust. It’s possible to get there without showing personal vulnerability, but it will take much longer to establish.

My rule of thumb is this: I won’t ask of you anything I wouldn’t ask of myself. If I invite you to provide information about yourself, I’ll do that first. If I’ve asked you to come in for an early meeting, I’ll get up even earlier and prepare something to improve your experience.

It’s one thing to tell your team, “You’re important to me, and I’m here for you.” It’s another thing entirely to prove that repeatedly with your actions.

This is the difference between service-oriented leadership versus hierarchy-oriented leadership. When leaders run teams with a service mindset, they make their success the team’s success. 

Holding people accountable helps them grow.

It may sound counterintuitive, but holding people accountable for their actions gives people psychological safety. By establishing expectations, communicated and managed by the leader, everyone is moving along on the train tracks together. This keeps the energy balanced and reduces the likelihood of frustration or outbursts.

Top-performing team members don’t enjoy seeing lesser-performing team members given equal opportunity. This is especially difficult to establish in a remote environment when it’s harder to see true progress—and easier for an employee to just get by.

In a hybrid or remote environment, people can hide under mediocrity for longer, frustrating their colleagues and team morale before the leader recognizes it.

Any humble human leader knows that the people closest to the action know the right thing to do in any situation long before the leader can take action. The problem with the team members closest to that action is that they lack the authority to do something about it.

I learned early in my career that the strongest Learning Leaders stay incredibly close to the people closest to the action. That’s how you get things done efficiently, quickly, and early enough that you can prevent any smoke signals and fires before they even spark.

Successful leaders balance humility and curiosity with courage and confidence.

If there’s one thing I’m adamant about, it’s that humility needs to be balanced to be successful. I always refer to the framework of courage and confidence juxtaposed with humility and curiosity. 

  • Courage: The willingness to speak up when uncomfortable.
  • Confidence: The belief that you belong at the table.
  • Humility: The belief that you can’t do your work alone and that others have value and matter to the business.
  • Curiosity: The wonder and desire to inquire about what you’re doing and why.

If a leader has courage and confidence, they can get things done and likely have a track record with incredible revenue numbers and growth to back it up, but their team members won’t follow them or trust them. They’re unstable, like a bull in a porcelain shop. 

If a leader has humility and curiosity, they’re able to connect with their team but lack the drive and tenacity to get things done. Their team will value them as a person, but they won’t have the business proof to support that feeling.

By having a command over these four characteristics —and being able to adjust them as situations or team demands—you have unlocked a superpower. Confidence and drive, checked by humility and empathy, lead to more productive achievement and growth, discouraging a competitive, destructive attitude amongst team members. Humility and vulnerability shouldn’t be seen as a weakness. Skill and confidence are essential, but without that human element, you won’t grow as a leader—and your industry and team will move on without you.

Monthly reflection and mindset shifts are vital for growth.

Any leader worth their salt checks in with their employees frequently, but in busy environments, those check-ins may turn into status updates. Knowing the status of projects is important—but it’s not an appropriate replacement for growth and reflection.

A practice I use is a monthly reflection meeting where we ask each other the following questions as it relates to our work together:

  • What’s been the best part of the past 30 days?
  • What’s been the worst part of the past 30 days?
  • Tell me one thing I could do differently to be a better partner.
  • What has worried you the most in the past 30 days?
  • What’s one thing you are most proud of in the past 30 days?
  • What have you been most grateful for in the past 30 days?

Dedicating time to this two-way conversation creates a consistent, safe space for your team to discuss what’s going well and what could be better. Leaders can learn from those closest to the action, as well.

Teams won’t win if they don’t have a humbly confident leader who’s constantly asking, “Who can I learn from?”

In my work as a service-oriented leader, I go by my Hot Shot Rule. This started as a quarterly practice, but now I set aside a few minutes every week to close my eyes and think of someone I admire—it doesn’t have to be someone I work with.

I envision a world where they step into my role at work, and I ask myself, “What is one thing you would do differently to impact the business?” Asking this simple question is a surefire way to tap into my humility and remind myself that I don’t know the answer to everything and that I’m limited by my experience. My Hot Shot Rule is a way to see the world I know through the fresh eyes of someone I admire.

Whatever comes to mind, I take action on it. Sometimes, that’s changing some aspect of the business, and others, that means sharing an idea with someone else. And when I do, the response I receive from a colleague and board member will usually sound a lot like, “What took you so long?”

You’re not an expert on everything in your business, and it’s impossible to know the answer to every question, but you can tap into your humility and grow yourself, your team, and your business further than you could have without it.

Learn more from incredible Learning Leaders like Kat and receive direct coaching by applying to be a part of my Leadership Circle today.